Brazil’s troubling first round election results and the fundamental decision voters must make in the runoff

Victor Aldridge ’24, Johns Hopkins University Student

Aldridge is a student at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Brazilian-American Student’s Association (BRASA) on the Homewood Campus. This is the first in a series of student-produced opinion pieces that will be published in the Fall 2022 Edition of the Foreign Affairs Review.

A man looks on in a store while another person walks into it draped in a towel with Brazilian former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Campinas, Sáo Paulo state, on October 2, 2022.   Photograph: Denny Cesare/@dennycesare

Although I was born in the United States, my Brazilian heritage has been vital to me. Most of my family resides in Brazil and I take great pride in my language, culture, and people. Brazil has been a democracy for the last 37 years and for the first time since the military coup in 1964, our political processes are being attacked. Bolsonaro has proven to be a destructive leader and many Brazilians have suffered under his mandate. He is harmful for the Brazilian political structure and has tried to establish his supremacy by denigrating many of Brazil’s political institutions and advocacy groups. Moreover, Bolsonaro has rolled back protections and social programs for Brazil’s disadvantaged and underrepresented people. If reelected on October 30th, he threatens to exacerbate much of the damage he has already wreaked upon the country. As a citizen of Brazil who cares deeply about the preservation of democracy in the country, the results from the first round of the presidential elections in Brazil are particularly troubling to me.  

The October 2nd elections in Brazil spelled out more than meets the eye. The first round failed to produce an outright winner among eleven candidates, and now the contest is down to two: former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro. Regardless, there is much to take away from the first round results. 

Prior to election day, reputed Brazilian pollster, Datafolha, showed that Lula was ahead by over 10 percentage points. When all was said and done on October 2nd, however, Bolsonaro had received over 43 percent of the votes to Lula’s 48 percent, a gap of only five percentage points. These results are worrisome going into the second round of voting on October 30th, especially since Bolsonaro has claimed that he will not accept the election results if he does not win. Days before the first round of the election, Bolsonaro’s party, the Partido Liberal (PL), published a document claiming that the electronic voting machines, which have been used in Brazilian elections for over 20 years and render results on the day of elections, were vulnerable to practices of election fraud by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE). The TSE denied such claims and said that the document published by the PL “aims to disrupt the electoral process” in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s actions leading up to the election display an unprecedented threat to the Brazilian democracy, a perspective I am not alone in expressing:

I find the attacks on the electoral process deeply troubling, as they could stir unrest and endanger our democracy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bolsonaro’s claims of electoral “fraud” led to violent actions like January 6th in the United States. A further threat to Brazilian democracy is the deregulation of access to firearms which took place during Bolsonaro’s administration. His supporters are known for being quite violent and many of them carry guns now. Political violence is on the rise and people are being killed because of their political views. In this sense, I believe Brazilian democracy isn’t safe, especially during the election period when stakes are higher, but also after.”

–       Isabel Teixeira, ‘23

The presidency and other political positions are being decided in the elections. Many of the pollsters underestimated the election results of rightist politicians running for office. A surprising number of newly elected congress members and state governors in the first round come from the Brazilian right wing and are candidates backed by Bolsonaro himself. Most notable is Sérgio Moro, the federal judge who oversaw the corruption investigation that led to Lula’s conviction and former Minister of Justice and Public Security under Bolsonaro, who was elected senator of his home state, Paraná. Additionally, Bolsonaro’s current vice-president and retired military officer, Hamilton Mourão, was elected senator of Rio Grande do Sul. These newly elected congress members show the power of Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric and appeal. The 2018 election was no fluke, but instead evidence of an insurgent right-wing with staying power in Brazil. The first round results mean that even if Lula is elected, his party and allies will likely not be the majority in Congress and may encounter significant headwinds in governing. Bolsonarismo has established itself as a strong force in Brazilian politics, which threatens not only Brazil’s democracy, but also LGBTQ+ rights, the push for greater racial and gender equality, indigenous rights, the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, among many other facets of Brazilian progress. 

Two voters in Brazil’s first round of elections walk in separate directions, one towards the voting table, the other walking away, at a voting station in Campinas, São Paulo on October 2, 2022.   Photograph: Denny Cesare/@dennycesares

Bolsonaro has made various sexist, homophobic, and insensitive remarks in the past. He has expressed an allegiance to the period of military dictatorship, during which he served as an army captain. This period saw the killing, disappearances, and torturing of thousands of Brazilians. Bolsonaro’s affinity for this era of Brazilian politics highlights his autocratic tendencies. Additionally, Bolsonaro denied the severity of COVID-19 and promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine as a drug to fight against the virus (something not proven by the scientific community), careless actions that contributed to the deaths of nearly 700,000 Brazilians. Even his primary 2018 campaign promise, to fight corruption and crime, has fallen apart. Since Bolsonaro assumed office, his son, Flávio Bolsonaro, has been charged for corruption, and political violence has become a normality with the president’s relaxation of gun laws. Additionally, the Amazon’s rapid deforestation has reached record highs under Bolsonaro’s presidency due to his enabling of miners, loggers, and farmers to illegally expand their activities to boost economic production. Despite all of this, many Brazilians still voted for him in the first round. These results alone provide a bleak outlook for Brazilian politics and the democratic process millions of Brazilians fought for during the repressive military dictatorship.

“I find it mind-blowing that over 51 million Brazilians voted to keep things as they are. In this sense, I was deeply disturbed by the [first round] results, as they signaled strong support for Bolsonaro’s destructive project, despite Lula having won more votes. I also find it extremely disappointing that many of Bolsonaro’s former ministers were elected. Politicians who have actively worked to allow the destruction of the Amazon; who have publicly prevented a 10-year-old raped child from seeking an abortion; who spread fake news about vaccines while others were dying in overcrowded hospitals. Before they had “only” been appointed by the President. But now Brazilians voted them into our political system, and they will stay there for at least four years. Thus, the outcome of the first election round challenges my visions for the country and frustrates my hope of things getting better soon.”

–       Isabel Teixeira, ‘23

“My hope before October 2nd was that Bolsonaro’s gross mismanagement of the country, coupled with his alarmingly authoritarian tendencies, would be enough to convince centrist voters to help the left elect Lula in the first round. Many political commentators believed that, if that was the case, Bolsonaro would have a much harder time disputing the results, as that would also mean questioning the ballots that elected hundreds of other politicians, including federal and state deputies, senators, and governors, which would greatly increase the political cost of an attempt at overturning the elections. But since that didn’t happen, Bolsonaro might feel emboldened to fulfill his year-old promise of leaving his first term ‘arrested, dead or victorious’, and even more so considering the greater share of votes he obtained compared to what was expected by previous polling institutions. But even assuming that he won’t make any antidemocratic attempts to stay in power, I imagine that the frequency of both peaceful demonstrations and political violence will increase for the foreseeable future, until he is definitively out of Brazilian politics.”

–       Rafael Utescher Stamillo, ‘24

Bolsonaro and his allied politicians pose a threat to many of the hopes and dreams that my colleagues and I harbor for Brazil’s future. The fact that Bolsonaro and the politicians he supports outperformed expectations in the first round of elections poses a challenge to those hopes. 

“My three main hopes for Brazil are more social equality, more tolerance for diverse identities, and more collaboration with the global community to fight climate change. Lula is unquestionably better than Bolsonaro in addressing each of those fields, and while I’m still hopeful that Lula wins the election, the first round in October 2nd has revealed a higher support for Bolsonaro than expected, as well as support for politicians of a similar ideology as him in different public offices. Even if Lula wins the election, he will have a harder time enacting policies both because of a likely uncooperative Congress, and because it would seem that a larger part of the population would reject his agenda.”

–       Rafael Utescher Stamillo, ‘24

“I could focus on a multitude of democratic or human rights features that are currently under attack in Brazil, including the electoral process, access to education, indigenous rights, freedom of political association, and the list goes on and on. But for now, I’ll just focus on a topic that I have researched more profoundly: food (in)security. In short, one of my visions of future Brazil is a country where everyone has access to food, and nobody must die from malnutrition. Jair Bolsonaro actively dismantled the public policies directed at food security, starting on his first day as president. Food insecurity rates rose to approximately 60% of Brazilian households by 2020. Currently, 33 million people are suffering from hunger.”

–       Isabel Teixeira, ‘23

Since October 2nd, Simone Tebet and Ciro Gomes, the candidates who finished third and fourth in the presidential race, have endorsed Lula—increasing the hope that their voter base will vote for the former president in the second round. On the other hand, Bolsonaro and his allies have continued to cast doubt on the election, claiming that polling firms have been used by Brazil’s left to manipulate the results. At Bolsonaro’s urging, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies has introduced and will vote on a bill that criminalizes the publication of a poll that inaccurately predicts election results. Additionally, Bolsonaro’s campaign has requested that the justice minister open an investigation on polling firms, which the chief of the TSE, Alexandre de Moraes, has put a stop to. Most recently, an ally of Bolsonaro’s and former lawmaker shot and threw grenades at police officers who came, by order of Brazil’s Supreme Court, to his home to arrest him for attacking a judge online. These developments show how Bolsonaro and his political allies, in continuing attacks on Brazilian institutions and democracy, have increased tensions in an already volatile and polarized political environment. Bolsonaro, his allies, and his supporters pose a threat to the country’s government, civil processes, and people.

Support for Lula has been negatively impacted due to his imprisonment and the ruined reputation of the Workers Party (PT) during the Operation Car Wash corruption investigations. Yet, he does not pose nearly as big a threat to Brazil’s democracy as Bolsonaro does. Lula’s presidency saw millions of people lifted from poverty, increased environmental protections, increased educational attainment among historically disadvantaged racial groups, and economic growth. Much of this progress came from the consolidation of various social programs under Bolsa Familia, a conditional cash transfer program for poor mothers who could prove that their children were receiving primary healthcare and attending school. Additionally, Lula helped get the ball rolling on the adoption of racial quotas in Brazil’s universities, an initiative that was made mandatory in his successor, Dilma Rousseff’s introduction of the “Quota Law” in 2012. This law increased access to tertiary education for Afro-Brazilians and other underrepresented groups, making attainment of higher education more equitable. 

Bolsonaro’s presidency, on the other hand, has seen the deaths of over 600,000 Brazilians due to mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased political violence, and increased deforestation, to name a few negatives. To Bolsonaro’s credit, foreign direct investment has increased this past year and the economy has rebounded from pandemic levels. Overall, however, the economic growth experienced under his presidency has been underwhelming. Much like former U.S. president Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has built a loyal following that believes in his populist rhetoric. For me and many of my colleagues, it is clear which presidential candidate has the greatest potential to propel the country forward rather than move it backwards. If the democratic process is preserved on October 30th, there is still hope for good things to come. In the eyes of many Brazilians, this election is a tipping point for our country and its future. For many outsiders looking in, the election results in Brazil may highlight whether or not democracy maintains its strength globally.

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